Chapter 21
A Mother's Love

Outside Corinth, Gladius; Gladian Year 603

"The most dangerous animal is a mother whose children are threatened."
- Excerpt from Wisdom of the Woodsmen

Cadmus Martial was on his way to Corinth for a routine visit. It was not something he was fond of doing. After he heard the mysterious voice six years ago, his wife had changed. Rather, she did not change. The years passed and she did not seem to age a day. His children inherited their mother's strangeness. It was as if they were not human. It only made the thought of handing them over to his unknown benefactor all the easier.
His horse abruptly neighed and reared up sharply onto its hind legs. While Cadmus struggled to bring the animal back under control, he heard the same voice that had called him six years ago.
"Cadmus Martial, your time has come. Within seven days the invaders will make their assault on Greystone. Have the men loyal to our cause tie black bands around their brassards to distinguish them from the enemy. Your children... Bring your children to Greystone. They will have the strength of adults, so bind them in chains."
"What about the mother?" Cadmus asked.
"She has served her purpose," the voice replied dispassionately. "Do what you must."
"Serve me well and you will have your reward."
The voice faded into the wind. Cadmus spurred his horse to move. Little did he realize that the task ahead was far more difficult than it sounded.

* * *

In the six years that had passed since her transformation, Flavia Sapphira had grown accustomed to her new body. The feats she could perform were simply astounding, more than she ever could dream of. However, her abilities came at a price.
She was thankful to be warned of her weaknesses by her maker, but life in the darkness was both sad and lonely. The pain was eased by the company of her children and a few servants that held her highest confidence.
Though she no longer needed sleep, she found that resting during the day complemented her preternatural regenerative abilities. She found the cold stone enclosure of a sarcophagus to be more comfortable than a bed of the softest goose down. To maintain appearances, she cut a hole in her old bed and placed the sarcophagus inside the center, covering it from view with several layers of samite sheets.
As a vampire, her dreams were far more vivid than what she had known as a human. It was like the difference between a master painter's magnum opus and a child's crude scrawling. This magnum opus, however, was interrupted by a soft tapping on her cheek.
Opening her eyes, she saw a small hand reaching into the sarcophagus. Pulling the sheets out of her way, she exposed her two children, Marcus Adrian and Adriana. As usual, Adriana was the one bold enough to disturb her mother's sleep. The girl looked at her mother with typical childish pleading.
"Mother, we're hungry."
Flavia smiled.
"You need to learn patience," she chided. "It would help if you slept during the day as I do. But no matter. I will get your dinner."
Flavia rose out of her sarcophagus and reached for a crystal bell on a stand near the side of the bed. It only took a few moments after the first ring for three maidservants to enter the room. Flavia looked at the young one in the middle, straining to keep her own bloodlust in check.
"Olivia, the children are hungry," she said. "Have you recovered from last time?"
"Yes, milady," the maidservant replied submissively.
Flavia motioned to her children and the two approached the servant. She pulled back her sleeves, exposing her forearms to the twins. Simultaneously, the two latched on to a wrist and began to drink. Flavia kept a careful watch, her keen hearing focused on the servant's heartbeat. The children were known to drink too greedily if she did not keep a close eye on them. Just as young Olivia was growing faint, Flavia stopped them.
"Enough," she said curtly.
The children released Olivia and the other two maidservants quickly bound her wounds.
"Rest now, Olivia," Flavia said softly. She waved her hand to dismiss them. "That is all. Tell Clarise and Giorgio that I want them here at midnight."
"Yes, milady," the other two said in unison.
The two servants supported their swooning companion and left the room. The children clambered onto the bed and curled up in the sheets, falling asleep almost instantly. Flavia gently caressed their heads.
Maybe it was because they were children or maybe it was because they were dhampir, but the thirst subsided so easily for them. She was almost envious.
Lying back in her sarcophagus, she slowly lulled herself to sleep. The more sleep she got, the less she would have to drink. She was certain that Clarise and Giorgio would appreciate her consideration.

* * *

Flavia's sleep was disrupted for a second time, but not by the hand of her daughter. Her eyes snapped open almost as soon as she felt the dull pain. She saw a sword sticking out of her chest. Someone had stabbed her.
Had one of the servants betrayed her secret? It did not burn, so it could not be silver. Clutching the blade, she pulled herself out of the sarcophagus, much to the surprise and terror of her attacker. Whoever it was released the sword, leaving it hanging in Flavia's torso. She looked around the room.
Several men armed with crossbows released their bolts at her. Once again, the pain was only temporary. They were not using silver either. They did not seem to know of her weaknesses. Were they really the hunters she was warned about?
She then saw someone she never expected: her husband.
"What is the meaning of this?" she hissed.
Her husband scowled at her.
"I'm ashamed to have such a monster for a wife. You and those two half-monster brats sully my name."
"You tarnish it enough yourself," she retorted.
If her oafish husband was going to behave like this, she would hold nothing back.
"The only shame is that my father was so short-sighted that he paired me with a worm like you. I wonder who your family had to kill to drag the sodden name of Cadmus out of the filth."
"Silence, wench!" her husband roared.
Another volley of bolts punctured her flesh. Childish.
"I do not die so easily, my lord husband," she said with a laugh. "I could kill all of you in the blink of an eye."
"Could you now?" Cadmus challenged. "You've kept those pets alive for quite a while, but I've taken care of them."
Flavia realized all those who had faithfully kept her secret and sustained her were now dead. Killing her husband would only be easier. As if he could sense what she was thinking, Cadmus held up his hand.
"Don't be so hasty, my darling wife. While I can't afford to keep you alive any longer, I have someone that has use for our children. I've left them with a couple of men. If I don't return soon, they'll slit the children's throats. I'm sure that'll be enough for even those half-monsters. If you want them to live, you'll stop resisting and let us kill you."
Flavia was trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea. She knew she could put no faith in her treacherous husband, leaving her with nothing to rely on than her abilities. Though her movements were as natural as breathing once was, she knew her attackers only saw a blindingly fast blur.
She broke the neck of one and gouged the eyes out of another before they could even draw their swords. Landing on the flat of a sword, her hand reached for the owner's throat, ripping it out from the neck in an effortless movement.
The extra split-second it took to perform the maneuver allowed one man to make a deep cut in her side. Turning to the attacker, she jumped forward, driving her fist straight through the man's armor and ribcage. This gave another attacker the chance to hack off the hand buried in his comrade's chest. Not even thinking about the pain, she raked her nails across the man's face, brutally mangling him for life if he did not die from the wounds.
She then felt her upper body disconnect from the lower half. She was still alive when she landed on the floor. She saw her husband loom over her. His contemptuous scowl had turned into a cocksure grin. Without a word, he brought his blade down on her neck and ended it all. She failed to save her children from their brutish father. That was her only regret.